Psychology's Final Frontier: Understanding Heroism

Starship Enterprise's crew shows everyday heroism even when no one will know.

Posted May 04, 2017

As mentioned here before, psychologists have conducted quite a bit of research on altruism but very little on the overlapping concept of heroism. We sometimes have to look at how people respond to fictional examples as we struggle develop a science of heroism. Here, heroism expert Zeno Franco shares his thoughts about the concept as exemplified in the award-winning Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever," which science fiction master Harlan Ellison scripted (original airdate: April 6, 1967).

"The City on the Edge of Forever." Original screen capture.
Source: "The City on the Edge of Forever." Original screen capture.

Q: First, for those readers who don't know every episode of Star Trek by title, what happens in "The City on the Edge of Forever"?

Franco: In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Enterprise encounters time disturbances emanating from a planet. In the turbulence, Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with a hypo causing paranoid psychosis. McCoy beams himself to the planet. The bridge officers form an away team to find McCoy. On the surface they find the Guardian of Forever, a sentient time portal showing them Earth’s history on fast forward. In his madness, McCoy jumps through the portal. The Enterprise disappears and the Guardian says, “Your vessel, your beginning, all that you knew is gone.” McCoy’s actions have disrupted history. Uhura says, “Captain, I am frightened,” as the officers realize they are marooned in time. As Kirk and Spock plan to jump through the portal to try to prevent McCoy from altering history, Kirk offers final instructions: "Scotty, when you think you've waited long enough, each of you will have to try it. Even if you fail [to jump through the portal near their own time], at least you'll be alive in some past world somewhere."

Q: How does that relate to heroism research?

Franco: This ability to transcend loss, to accept an unanticipated future, and adhere to principle in the face of crisis are the foundation of heroic action, which is gaining increasing attention in research psychology (Franco, Blau & Zimbardo, 2011). While there are plenty of examples of dramatic heroics in Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever” illustrates that these are based in a heroic stance that informs every encounter, even if the crew’s stories—any record of their existence—is lost to the nameless void.

Q: I find it interesting that you've chosen to look at a story about the Nazis' role in history, considering that efforts to understand their evil plays an important role in the history of psychology. Erich Fromm, Stanley Milgram, and many others conducted research and developed whole theories out of trying to make sense out of what happened because of Hitler.

Franco: For most of the last century, psychologists focused on understanding evil, in response to the horrors of World War II. While Joseph Campbell and others began to explore heroism using mythic and narrative psychology, very little empirical study of the extreme good in human nature was performed. This changed in the last decade, with early studies on the social psychology of heroism that differentiated it from topics like altruism (Becker & Eagly, 2004; Zimbardo, 2007; Franco, Blau, Zimbardo, 2011). Everyday heroism, the idea that anyone can be a hero if prepared to act in crisis situations, was introduced along with the notion that we have to foster a “heroic imagination” in ourselves (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006).

Q: Where does a TV story fit into all that?

Franco: Stories like “The City on the Edge of Forever” offer just such a chance to consider how we would act when faced with the profound unknown. A large part of this heroic stance involves the ability to transcend fear and act based on a principle driven or existential view of life—that by preserving the ideals we hold dear, our lives are meaningful even in the face of death.

Related posts:

A portion of this appears in the book Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier (Sterling Publishing, 2017).


Becker, S. W., & Eagly, A. H. (2004). The heroism of women and men. American Psychologist, 59(3), 163.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15(2), 99.

Franco, Z., & Zimbardo, P. (2006). The banality of heroism. Greater Good, 3(2), 30-35.

Langley, T. (Ed.) (2017). Star Trek psychology: The mental frontier. New York, NY: Sterling.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, NY: Random House.